The captivating game Purposes, by Céline Song, actually contains two disparate leitmotifs. With each theme absorbing into itself, the 90-minute presentation explores thought-provoking questions and features polished acting and direction. It is definitely worth seeing.
PurposesOakland Theater Project, The Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, through April 23
Presented in association with the Ferocious Lotus Theater Company and directed by May Liang (artistic director of this company), Purposes first introduces the audience to three elderly women. They are haenyeos, or “women of the sea,” who snorkel for seafood off the coast of South Korea. Living on the remote island of Man-Jae, they dive in waters as deep as 65 feet to the ocean floor where they catch abalone and other fresh seafood, which they sell to earn their living. life. Equipped only with a weighted vest and goggles, these women perform dozens of dives every day while holding their breath for more than two minutes at a time. This generation of haenyeos are the last practitioners of an ancient tradition.
After exploring the lonely lives of these women, the scene cuts to the small Manhattan studio of Ha Young (Joyce Domanico-Huh); she is a stand-in for the playwright. While struggling to write a play (probably the play we’re watching), this modern Korean-Canadian young woman tells her white husband that she was “bribed by white people’s attention” to write about the haenyeos. She wonders how much her work should reflect her Korean ancestry instead of the authors she loves, Shakespeare, Albee and Brecht.
As we watch the formidable three haenyeos on the expertly crafted set (Karla Hargrave), it’s immediately clear that they hate their jobs. Yet they are forced to keep diving – for money and out of habit and ritual. Han Sol (Keiko Shimosato Carreiro) is a cheerful 90-year-old diver whose only pleasure is watching television. She repeatedly shouts “Hollywood Forever”. Sook Ja (Pauli N. Amornkul) tries the glam by applying lipstick before each dive. Feisty ’80s aquanaut Go Min (Mia Tagano) tells us, “When [my children] were young, they asked me to teach them how to dive in the ocean with a rusty knife… and I hit them on the head.
Like all young people, Go Min’s children left the island a long time ago. The fate of the trio haenyeos recalls the characters of Samuel Beckett. They spend endless identical days and wait for a fishing boat that never arrives.
In New York, substitute author Ha Young tells us “the story of my immigration” in a breathy but joyful voice. In her bare apartment, we meet her white husband (Adam Kuve Niemann), who carries a sign identifying him as her “WHITE HUSBAND”. She explains why she wrote the play on the haenyeos“I was Machiavellian. I was cynical. I decided to write this piece because I was trapped. She feels both tempted and pressed by the white gaze. “Some of them gave me money so I could keep working on it,” she says. In a fun skit, white male actors perform a performance of a “white play” in a “white theater”, saying things like “Oh my white god, hear my white prayer”.
I laughed a lot at Celine Song’s sobering humor. But the piece sometimes struggled to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Still, watching Song seek to come to terms with the tensions of his hybrid ethnicity makes for engaging theater. I would love to see what she does next.
Endlings plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through May 1 at the Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. Tickets cost between $10 and $52. All participants must present proof of vaccination or a negative test and wear a mask. There will be a live performance at 7:30 p.m. on April 23. Tickets are available online or by calling 510-646-1126.
Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and arts critic since 2012.